Quenneville and the Evolution of Player Usage

Love him or hate him, Chicago Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville has helped breathe life back into hockey in Chicago. Since his arrival in Chicago in 2008, the team has won the Stanley Cup twice, made it to the Western Conference Final four times, and been in the playoffs every season. Obviously, this is not only Quenneville’s doing as he does have some amazing players on his roster, but there are other teams in the league with good players who have not enjoyed this kind of success. This past season, the Blackhawks found themselves a goal away from the Stanley Cup Final; however, getting there was a wild ride.

During the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks essentially ran only three lines. Michal Handzus was basically left on the bench apart from penalty killing duties. Andrew Shaw had just returned from a knee injury that left him struggling a bit. Marian Hossa was shooting the puck every time he got his stick on it and it just would not go in the net. Patrick Sharp was having the same problem and eventually found himself on a line with Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith in the role of “checking line” wing. In short, the playoffs were pretty weird.

The regular season seemed long and drawn out (but still so very enjoyable) compared to the lockout shortened sprint to the Stanley Cup that the previous season brought. This season was really an experiment for Quenneville in my very humble opinion. Of course, I’m not saying he didn’t want to win. To the contrary, I think it was obvious he did, but he put a plan in place that was an expansion on his previous efforts in terms of player usage and deployment that is very unique in the NHL.

Typically, coaches will use their top lines against the toughest competition and often in difficult defensive situations resulting in the top center having a zone start ratio (defensive vs offensive zone starts) at or less than 50%. The top line center is commonly considered the most defensively responsible (players like Kopitar and Bergeron come to mind). The 3rd line, or checking line, may also be used against tougher competition to provide some breathing room for the top two lines. The 4th line is often made up of low minute players who are sheltered in usage and deployment. This means the 4th line faces lesser competition and frequently starts in the offensive zone to avoid defensive problems.

The Boston Bruins and San Jose Sharks, two very good possession teams, are good examples of this. The player usage charts below can be read like this:

Top = Tougher Quality of Competition; Bottom = Lower Quality of Competition
Left = More Defensive Zone Starts; Right = More Offensive Zone Starts
Size of Circle = Time on Ice
Red = Negative Possession Numbers (<50% CF%) (darker red worse lighter red better)
Blue = Positive Possession Numbers (>50% CF%) (darker blue better lighter blue worse)
*player usage charts from the now offline www.extraskater.com

Boston Bruins

download (35)

San Jose Sharks

download (34)

Quenneville went against the grain in his usage and deployment of players this season.

2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks 2013-2014 player usage (19)

The Blackhawks “4th line” of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith took on the burden of the defensive zone starts. At home, with the benefit of last change, Kruger’s line was used against the opponent’s top line once for every two times Toews’ line went against them. Occasionally this ratio was even more pronounced with Kruger’s line facing the other top line 1:1 with Toews’ line. On the road, Quenneville tried to maintain this game plan but it was a bit tougher to do, so Toews’ line carried the heavier Quality of Competition burden.

Using Kruger’s line as a defensively minded checking line allowed Quenneville to give his other three forward lines more neutral zone and offensive zone starts thereby optimizing the Blackhawks offensive attack. This also extended to the defensive pairings. Despite league wide perception that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the shutdown pairing in Chicago, this title is actually held by Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya.

dz share cf blackhawks

The graph above shows the Blackhawks Defensive Zone Share, less on the left to more on the right, and the CF% (Corsi For %), lower on the bottom to higher on the top. Kruger, Oduya and Hjalmarsson had the highest Defensive Zone Shares followed by Bollig, Smith, Keith and Seabrook. One of the special things about the Blackhawks, is that despite this unique usage and deployment, at 5v5 this season all of the players maintained a CF% of greater than 50%, i.e. possessed the puck more than their opponents. We can see the changes in Quenneville’s tactics when we compare this past season’s usage with the prior season.

2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks 2012-2013 player usage (3)

dz share cf pct blackhawks 12-13

While Kruger, Hjalmarsson and Oduya still appear at the far right of the Defensive Zone Share graph from 2012-13, Keith shows up as well. There was a significant shift from 12-13 to 13-14 in the Defensive Zone Shares of the top forwards, Patrick Kane in particular. Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and several others also had tougher zone starts in 12-13 than 13-14. Patrick Kane’s CF% was noticeably improved this season with this change and despite his linemate problems.

Chicago Blackhawks 2011-2012 player usage (1)

Chicago Blackhawks 2010-2011 player usage

When the usage of the players is compared over the last handful of seasons, the evolution of Quenneville’s player usage is easy to observe.

The differences in home and away usage and deployment from this past season are interesting as well. In 2010-11, Bolland, Pisani, Bickell and Dowell were used out of the defensive zone more frequently than the other players. Dowell was deployed more frequently against lesser competition whereas Bolland, Bickell and Pisani were used against tougher Quality of Competition. The possession numbers for that group were below 50%.

The following season, 2011-12, Bolland and Bickell carried the heaviest load in terms of defensive zone responsibilities, but were joined by Kruger and Frolik. Mayers also took some of this burden, but against far lesser competition than the others. While Bolland and Mayers finished the season under 50% CF%, Bickell, Kruger and Frolik all finished with positive possession numbers. Bickell’s usage is particularly interesting given the popular narrative of the past season that he is not defensively responsible. The more logical explanation for the change is usage is two-fold. First, Bickell brings more offensive prowess than Bollig, Kruger or Smith. Second, the evolution of the way that Quenneville wants to use his players has reached its apex and thus every player not on the checking line will have optimized zone starts.

defensive zone starts

This season, during away games, Kruger’s line saw a much heavier share of defensive zone starts than other lines. This is likely due to the fact that it was harder for Quenneville to get the matchups he wanted on the fly due to the home team having the last change. The more practical way to get those matchups was off of a faceoff because so many teams use their top lines for defensive zone faceoffs. While Kruger’s line still carried the burden of defensive zone faceoffs at home, they were a bit more spread out through the lineup.

Quenneville has been making adjustments to the way in which he deploys his players for several seasons. The usage we witnessed last season was the most extreme in terms of zone starts and quality of competition faced by a “4th” line not only in the Chicago Stanley Cup Era but also the most extreme throughout the league.

It would not be a surprise to see Quenneville attempt this experiment again this coming season given the success it brought last season. With the 2nd line center situation hopefully resolved for the time being, the same type of deployment should open up even more space for the three scoring lines to do their work.

  • Dangles

    This was awesome Jen. Way to break it down and simplify it for us. Can’t wait for more of this to come this season!

    • raditzzzz

      if extra skater comes back?

      • Harry Longwood

        Usage charts are available elsewhere (e.g. somekindofninja.com), as are most of the other stats that Extra Skater had; they just did the best job of compiling them and making them easy to find/sort.

        • raditzzzz

          i guess that why im a goalie. usage is pretty simple for us.

  • JoshC

    Do you remove face-offs after an icing call when calculating these stats?

    • Brain Sprain

      That’s a good question. The suspense is killing me.

      • Jen LC

        sorry for the delay guys. Those stats do not exclude face-offs after an icing so there is a little bit of noise, however, I don’t think it makes such a big difference since each line/d pairing combo tends to even out a bit in terms of who is on the ice when that happens. I can’t recall how the icing leaders were this season off of the top of my head though.

  • Chucho

    As the league gets away from “enforcers,” will this become a league-wide trend? I could see teams going for three “scoring” lines and one checking line as a natural evolution, not just in Chicago.

  • ahnfire

    This is amazing. I find it so interesting the things people see and draw while watching games – I would have never noticed how Q’s player usage has changed in the past few years.

    My only request would be to add a fold next time so it doesn’t take up the entire page when loading the homepage, please?

    • raditzzzz

      it seems to make some sense in hindsight. kruger’s usage in a defensive role emerged pretty quick after his experimentation on the second line early on. this year, we all knew something special was going on with that fourth line, and the whole stan comments about us not having set traditional line makeups (although that was primarily to deflect criticism about not having a decent “2nd line” center).

      super cool to see all those figures side by side. moral of the story, whatever line krug is on is the checking line. lucky for us to have such quality between him and ben smith eating up real minutes against good competition. and lest this hater glance over it, bollig was a part of that too.

      • ahnfire

        Not to continue/turn this into another Bollig hater vs defender debate, but my problem with the love for Bollig was that people kept acting like he’s this diamond in the rough. Props to Bollig, he did a good job in the regular season keeping up on that checking line – but I don’t think that suddenly makes him an extremely valuable player.

        People seemed to be concerned that we won’t be able to find another player that can replicate what he did with Frogger & BenSmith! but I attribute Bollig’s turn into a useful LW on Q. I think it was Q & his system more than Bollig suddenly becoming a skilled hockey player.

        So in the end, I have more faith that Q will be able to mold whatever 12/13th forward we end up with into being an adequate replacement for Bollig and continuing with the success they had last year. Of course, it might take a couple spins in the blender before one fits, but that’s how it goes with this team.

        • Black JEM

          Bollig’s stats are a byproduct of Qs strategy. This shows that any winger on Kruger’s line would drive possession by sheer volume of defensive zone starts.

          • raditzzzz

            i usually take the whole “dragged along with his linemates” idea with a grain of salt. but i’ll make an exception for bollig. kruger and smith were awesome on that line.

            can’t wait to see what they can do with another player who can do more than check people after play has moved on.

  • Shane O.

    The 2012-2013 chart shows with rather obvious clarity that “Hey look Dave Bolland isn’t that good anymore” and yet the Florida Panthers went out and offered him oodles of money simply because he played with Toews, Kane, and a bunch if other really good players.

    And then people criticize me for being too negative about the Bolland signing.

  • birdhead

    Awesome summary thanks Jen, and really cool to see all the previous years’ charts put together in one place like that.

  • Hawkeytalk

    Interesting when you look at the 2010-11 graph, every player in the upper right quadrant except Brouwer is still with the team, and most of the rest are gone or out of the league. It’s almost like they look at this stuff!

    And welcome @regressedPDO!

  • JT

    Great breakdown. Great charts.
    Unfortunately it shows that Q is doing something I like. Drat.
    oh well. I’ll be interested in how this develops over the first 30 games of the next season. Thanks!

    • Black JEM

      The players have always liked him and seem to play for him. And he was a little less mad scientist this year. My argument with him was how old #52 spent as much time in the line up as he did, and for what purpose. I believe that cost us a better chance at the Cup, as he was without fail the worst player on the ice for either team most nights.

      We have heard a lot about Bollig’s fancy stats. Well, if they are skewed by a deliberate usage based upon the coach’s attempts at maximizing his matchup advantages, none of those stats are his, as anyone at the wing on that line would have gotten them. Kruger’s improved face off play being a big help right off the bat.

  • Cool junk. I think you’re bang on here with the likelihood of Q continuing, the whole roster is built that way now. This leads to my most interesting curiosity coming into the season, though … with Kruger/Smith poised again to take on this role, who’s going to be the second winger???

    • 1985AH1985

      Regin? He seems to have Q’s trust and is more of a D first kind of guy. That would leave the 3rd line of Bickell, Shaw and Morrin/Versteeg assuming Richards is playing top 6 and TT starts in AHL. As an aside, can we please please get Versteeg off this team. Any trade of Leddy/Oduya/Rosival should include Versteeg as a condition.

      • Brain Sprain

        If Regin is going to take on that role his % at the dot is going to have to improve.

        • Regin would be shunted to wing in this situation, no way he’d take over from Kruger.

          • 1985AH1985


      • Suppose it’s possible. I’m not sure Regin has the chops for the LW role, but you never know. Something has to give.

  • Brain Sprain

    Great post. I’m so curious about this seasons main pairings and usage.

  • melissa_peterson

    I’d be interested to compare how their current usage [and subsequently, their stats] changed for players that were used differently by coaches other than Quenneville, as well as their stats’ changes as Quenneville shifted the team’s style. Not suggesting you have to do all the work, Jen, because I know how long this takes, but I’m wondering if you think it’d be something worth looking at

  • HawkIPA

    Interesting stuff. Love the breakdown in chart form. Looking forward to more fancy-stats sessions this season–welcome to TCI Jen!